Is Matt Wieters The Best Catcher In Baseball?

Maybe*. If he keeps hitting .344/.462/.750, then I like his chances to take that crown (as well as the MVP award – and maybe the Cy Young).

* Just want to make sure it’s clear that the hot start is nice but only slightly helps Wieters’ cause – he was already probably one of the best catchers in baseball, and the leap to the top would have been a relatively short one in any case.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Wieters leads all Major League catchers in fWAR with 5.9. Right behind him is a plus hitter who can’t catch all that well (Mike Napoli) and a plus catcher who’s probably not much better than an average hitter (Yadier Molina, though Yadi does have 3 home runs already this year). A little harder to find someone adding a lot of value on both sides of the ball, which is what it looks like Wieters is poised to do. 

The Gold Glove last year was legit, and when Wieters figures out whatever kink has been thrown into the gears this season as far accuracy is concerned (if there is one), he should once again be a weapon behind the plate.Taking things back to 2010, he’s first in Defensive Runs Saved on steals. And Wieters is the second highest rated catcher according to the Fan Scouting Report (to Molina – who he actually narrowly beat last year). Of catchers with at leas 1,000 innings the last three seasons, he’s allowed the second fewest passed balls (3). The pitch-framing data is somewhat less positive, but still has Wieters as above-average in that area as well. I think it’s fair to say Wieters is one of – if not quite* – the best defensive players at his position.

* He probably has a good claim on the best as far as arm + pitch-blocking goes though.

Offensively, the output that many expected right when he was called up may finally be appearing. It’s still very early (and I wasn’t exactly confident in major advances over 2011 before the season started), but signs have been positive. Wieters’ strike-out to walk ratio so far this year is 4-7 (that is, almost twice as many of the good one). He’s shown a more patient approach at the plate, and cut down on the number of pitches he swings at that our out of the strike-zone. He’s putting the bat on the ball when it’s in the zone though, hitting the ball with some authority (not only the 4 home runs and a double, but a fair number of line-drives that have helped up his BABIP to .292). Having a catcher that isn’t a hole in the line-up is one thing – having a catcher batting in the middle of it is another.

Obviously Wieters isn’t likely to continue this pace and hit 60+ home runs this year, but if the plate discipline is a real improvement then I could potentially see him hitting something like .300/.375/.500 this year (or in the near future) with a bit of batted ball luck (and not even a super crazy amount). That’s a top 15-20 hitter (in all of baseball) type line. From a catcher. A Gold Glove catcher. Which is about the time the conversation moves from best player at his position to best player (full stop). (With the playing-time limitation and injury risks associated with the position, I highly doubt one could make a really convincing argument for the case – but there could at least be some conversations about it.)

Even if he doesn’t hit that well though – and I don’t expect him to, but wouldn’t be surprised by it – a consistent .350-.360 wOBA (instead of ~.385) is usually going to be good enough for top 5 or so among catchers. Add the plus defense and that’s around a 5 win player. Number of catchers who averaged 5 wins a year from 2009 to 2011*? One – Joe Mauer (with 15 total fWAR on the nose).

* I just picked a recent stretch. Breaking it up into a series of two-year periods;

Players with 10+ fWAR over the period Years
Joe Maur 2009-10
Mauer 2008-09
Russell Martin 2007-08
Jorge Posada 2006-07
Posada + Javy Lopez 2003-04
Posada 2002-03
Mike Piazza 2000-01
Piazza + Ivan Rodriguez 1999-00
Piazza + Rodriguez + Jason Kendall 1998-99
Piazza + Rodriguez + Kendall 1997-98
Piazza + Rodriguez 1996-97
Piazza 1995-96
Piazza 1994-95
Piazza + Chris Hoiles (!) 1993-94
Hoiles + Darren Daulton 1992-93
Mickey Tettleton 1991-92

Things I take from this : (1) Mike Piazza was really freakin’ good in his first 10 seasons, and (2) combining for 10 wins over two years is pretty darn impressive for a catcher. There are a number of guys with a fair chance at it for 2011-12, but betting on Wieters to be the one isn’t especially foolhardy.